On April 19, 1989, the lives of five New York teenage boys changed forever. On that night, a young female jogger was brutally raped in Central Park. These five teenagers were accused of the crime by investigators. They were at the wrong place at the wrong time. In 2019, Netflix made a true crime-based series on this incident titled When They See Us. The series examined the role that the race of the subjects played in their victimisation. Reacting to the series, creator Ava Duvernay said to CBS News, “My goal was to humanise the boys, and now men, who are widely regarded as criminals. And in doing that, to invite the audience to re-interrogate everyone that they define as a criminal… I’m asking the question to everyone, ‘What do you see when you see black boys?’”
In the past few years, there have been repeated deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers. This has raised a number of questions about the treatment of racial minorities within the criminal justice system. Several researchers have called for Congressional-mandated government databases to be more thorough so they can better find patterns in the violent interactions between police and civilians. The murder of George Floyd has further strengthened these demands. In a recently surfaced video on the social media, it was seen that Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis policeman while arresting Floyd, pinned him against the ground under his knees for several minutes. Floyd’s final words, “I can’t breathe”, became a rallying cry for protests across the globe that was initiated in the US. Social media posts were flooded with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
In 2016, a study by The New England Journal of Medicine found out that there were 222 ‘legal intervention’ deaths or cases in which one was killed by an on-duty law enforcement officer in 2013. Surprisingly, the study was based on data from just 17 states where none of the largest states like California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas were included. The study further mentioned that nearly everyone killed by on-duty officers in those states that year were male and between the ages of 20 and 54 years old. Moreover, black people were most likely to die in police custody. The article stated, “The rates [of death] were higher among non-Hispanic blacks (0.6 per 100,000 population) and Hispanics (0.3 per 100,000) than among non-Hispanic whites (0.1 per 100,000).” In 2019, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a newer study was published that estimated that black men have one in 1,000 chance of being killed by police during their lifetimes. That is 2.5 times the odds for a non-Hispanic white man.
All these data prove that the murder of George Floyd is not an isolated incident. The death has triggered worldwide protest movements, resulting from years of frustration and instances of innumerable racial discrimination cases taking place across the globe. For generations, activists have sought to make a change and highlight the racial disparities and systemic racism prevalent in society. From abolitionist Harriet Tubman to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., men and women have fought against racial oppression over the years by providing an insight into the lived experiences of black people and calling on populations to be actively anti-racist in their attitudes.
Shreyasi Ghosh, Faculty Member, Department of Political Science, Basanti Devi College, Kolkata, told BE, “The issue concerning the global outrage for George Floyd’s murder amidst a devastating pandemic exposes how systematic racism behind excessive police brutality is still deeply ingrained in the society.”
There are apprehensions that unlike the civil rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, without organised structure and the presence of an identifiable leader, may falter in its course. However, for various scholars, it is not necessary to have a singular distinguished leader in the movement. Instead, communicating the movement’s main agenda of securing racial equality to all those living under a similar dream is the main objective of the movement. Although one thing has to be addressed. The protest movements in the US and the sense of grievance and solidarity has given a voice for protest to other Western cities like Berlin, London and Toronto. People are getting more and more vocal about human rights and they have understood that without equality, these incidents will continue against certain communities.
John Boyega, a British actor was present at the protest in London. The actor gave a moving speech at Hyde Park and cameras caught moments when the actor broke down in tears of frustration. Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie consoled the actor through her Instagram page and said that the black people have been through a lot and it was admirable to see them taking up their spaces. In the caption, she wrote, “The air is thick with grief. But there’s also reason for cautious hope, maybe this time is different, maybe. @johnboyega.”
Community organisers Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors, and Alicia Garza started the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 feel that it is different this time. The movement started as a hashtag in response to the death of Trayvon Martin, protesting the killings of African-Americans throughout the country. Tometi told The New Yorker, “We have millions of people who have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment and are living paycheck to paycheck and hand to mouth, and I believe they are just thoroughly fed up and thoroughly beside themselves with grief and concern and despair because the government does not seem to have a plan of action that is dignified and comprehensive and seeks to address the core concerns that the average American has.” She also added, “And so my belief and my view of these protests is that they are different because they are marked by a period that has been deeply personal to millions of Americans and residents of the United States, and that has them more tender or sensitive to what is going on.”
The anti-racist protesters and scholars promote for a less-policed existence and investment in the impoverished, segregated communities, as well as self-determination for those who live there. The policy specifics have a wide area to deal with, from the institutionalist reforms of the Democratic Party to the radical proposals outlined by the Movement for Black Lives. Generally speaking, the consensus emphasises on less police and more community control. For certain activists, the protests against police brutality and policies that aim at unravelling the existent racism, often fall short of the reforms that are aimed to achieve. There have been several instances of protests but the absence of reformation is poignant. However, this time, the racial inequality is amplified by the global pandemic and economic crisis but still certain scholars feel that the change in policy paradigm will not be determined by the duration of these protests but the upcoming elections.